Insights from the Aspen Leaders Forum on the Evolving Sustainability Profession

“To win in the 2020s and beyond, business will have to be about more than just business. Companies will need to create value not only for their shareholders but also for society – by confronting humanity’s toughest challenges.” – Boston Consulting Group “Winning the ’20s“.

Even before COVID-19 unleashed its havoc on the world, the stakes were high for corporate sustainability strategists. They are higher now that a multi-dimensional crisis is unfolding.

Sustainability departments in large companies were once about compliance, efficiency, disclosures and public relations. As the new decade dawned, companies that wanted to be in the vanguard of sustainability practice were expecting a great deal more from the experts in these departments. The COVID crisis has upped the ante even further as sustainability strategists now help companies manage their response to employees and customers, provide disaster relief and plan for the long-term in a world that will look nothing like it did on January 1, 2020.

As a result, the job of the corporate sustainability strategist has become more difficult – and more exciting and critical to business success – than ever.

Nearly a decade ago, the Aspen Business & Society Program launched the Aspen Leaders Forum, a cross-industry invitation-only network of top notch sustainability and social impact strategists in leading companies. These strategists are working at the cutting edge of practice and influencing the future of the profession. At present, revenues of the companies represented in the Forum exceed $1 trillion. Across the globe these companies employ over 2.3 million people.

Over the last six months, we have sought their insights on what is changing in the zeitgeist that is affecting their work – and, potentially, amplifying their impact. We sought information about what their jobs now entail, how their responsibilities are shifting and what they see ahead for the sustainability profession.

This report, in three sections, offers a summary of we have heard and what we believe it takes to be on top of your game at the start of this new decade.

  • Trends that signal increased need for expert sustainability strategists
  • Ways companies are responding to these changes
  • Strategies for becoming a best in class sustainability strategist for the new decade
NOTE:   We are using the term “sustainability” to refer to the wide array of social, environmental and governance issues that impact companies and society –  issues that differ by company and by industry. Thus, throughout the report, we refer to the individuals who manage these issues as “sustainability strategists” even though they have wide-ranging titles. A common thread is that all of them have enterprise-wide responsibilities for steering the corporate ship through what we are calling “whitewater,” the churn that results from integrating social, environmental, and governance issues into business practice and policy to achieve results that benefit all corporate stakeholders.

Learn more about the Aspen Leaders Forum.